April 19, 2012 / Perspective
From personal faith to social critique, Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books presents an incisive, hopeful approach toward understanding culture and loving others.
December 23, 2008
In the 2004 senatorial race for Illinois, Republican candidate Allen Keyes claimed, “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama, because Barack has voted to behave in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved.”1 Keyes specifically had in mind Obama’s refusal to support a bill that would protect infants who are born alive after botched abortions. While I am confident that Jesus would not support abortion-on-demand, I am less confident that his followers should make pronouncements about how Jesus would vote. In fact, it is quite possible that Jesus would not vote at all. Not every situation lends an answer to the evangelical question “What would Jesus do?” Therefore, I was inclined to take a subversive approach to the presidential election in November by asking “What would Nietzsche do?”
Consider this aphorism from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human:
Leave to speak. All political parties today have in common a demagogic character and the intention of influencing the masses; because of this intention, all of them are obliged to transform their principles into great frescoes of stupidity, and paint them that way on the wall. Nothing more can be changed about this—indeed, it is superfluous even to lift a finger against it [. . . .] Now that this has happened, one must adapt to the new conditions, as one adapts when an earthquake has moved the old limits and outlines of the land, and changed the value of property.2
Nietzsche’s observation about the “demagogic character” of political parties reminds me of George Washington’s stern warning against factions in his 1796 Farewell Address:
They [i.e., factions] are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.3
Four years after his warning, political parties had become entrenched in American politics.
I agree with Nietzsche: We cannot return to the same landscape after the earthquake. Like most Americans, I adapt to the terrain of political parties with ambivalence. I will not lift a finger against the two-party system in the United States by voting for an independent candidate. In Beyond Left and Right, Amy Black offers three reasons why our nation does not have multiple parties competing for power. First, the origin of two dominant parties begins with the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists over ratification of the Constitution. She writes, “Whenever a third party emerged to challenge the status quo, it has either been subsumed into one of the two existing parties or has replaced one of them. In either case, the balance of power quickly returns to two parties.” Second, the structure of our political system, marked by single-member, simple plurality, motivates “voters to align their preferences with two, and only two, parties.”4 Third, the structure of presidential elections, organized by the Electoral College, contributes to the two-party system.
Because the elephants and donkeys are here to stay, I faced an existential dilemma this voting season: endure the “great frescoes of stupidity” painted by the political parties or vacate the voting booth altogether. In the past I have stomached the demagoguery. As the last presidential campaign drew closer to election day, with more sludge flying than at a mud bogging race, I seriously considered Nietzsche’s proposal “to keep out of politics and stand aside a little,”5 an action he chose for himself.
Scholars have tried to enlist Nietzsche as a defender of sundry political philosophies, but as Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins claim in What Nietzsche Really Said:
Nietzsche attacks democracy and socialism, but he attacks with equal ferocity autocracy, tyranny, oligarchy, theocracy, nationalism, militarism, racism, intolerance, and political stupidity of all kinds. If he defends any kind of political action, it is aristocracy, “the rule by the best,” a notion he shared, ironically, with his favorite target, Socrates. Also like Socrates, Nietzsche adjured personal involvement in politics and paid full attention to the question of individual virtue, what Socrates summarized as “the good of one’s soul.”6
Nietzsche’s position is vulnerable to a false dichotomy. Care for individual virtue does not exclude care for the common good; they are inextricably linked. “If the business of all politics is to make life tolerable for the greatest number,”7 as Nietzsche suggests, then political and apolitical actors are both focused on what constitutes the “tolerable life.” Put differently, if politics is about “the pleasure of self-determination,”8 then disengagement from politics may be construed as an act of engagement.
When too many people are speaking, as is the case with our bloviating twenty-four-hour cable news and blogosphere, Nietzsche advises silence—a silence that becomes noisy protest. He says that the few conscientious objectors “do not take the happiness of the many (whether defined as peoples, or classes of population) so seriously, and are now and then guilty of an ironic attitude; for them, seriousness lies elsewhere; they have embraced a different concept of happiness; their goal cannot be embraced by any clumsy hand with just five fingers.”9
The Apostle Paul exhibits an “ironic attitude” that is seldom seen in the Religious Right (read Jim Dobson) or the Religious Left (read Jim Wallis). Both groups dangerously conflate political seriousness with eschatological seriousness. As a conscientious objector to the city of Man, Paul does not take “the happiness of the many so seriously” because the “lowly body” (Philippians 3:21) is the site of redemption rather than the body politic. Consider what he says to his brethren in Phillipi:
Join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:17-19)
Tearfully, Paul observes that many “walk as enemies of the cross,” defiling the city of God to an extent that we cannot achieve its full restoration—only its partial transformation.
The contrastive conjunction in this scriptural passage reveals that Paul has, in Nietzsche’s words, “embraced a different concept of happiness”: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:19-21). Eschatological happiness hinges on an awareness that our primary allegiance is to the city of God and a hope that what cannot be achieved by our “clumsy hand” will be achieved by the just and merciful hand of Jesus Christ. Living between the First and Second Advents, we may enter and exit the political arena, guarding ourselves against the kind of misguided seriousness that energizes Barack Obama, who has declared that he will “take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union,”10 which distorts the words in the Constitution (“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union”) with a utopianism that the founding fathers and the Apostle Paul would disabuse because of their belief in human frailty and finitude.
Ted Lewis has compiled a volume of essays from Christians who, against the grain, exhibit an ironic attitude toward politics in Electing Not to Vote. Three authors are worth mentioning here.
From the Pentecostal tradition, Paul Alexander looks to Charles Parham, who taught abstention from voting because “fighting by sword or ballot arouses all the carnal there is in people.”11 Parham faulted American Christians “for bowing to the ‘Moloch God, Patriotism’ and believed that the nation was not worth fighting for and that it would ‘end with a dictator and a final fall . . . which the government, the rich and the churches will be on one side and the masses on the other.’”12 For early Pentecostal leaders, the Kingdom of God was not simply above the kingdoms of the world but against them. Patriotism was idolatry because it invoked the “religious passion.” Responding to “the slavery, genocide, and greed of the American experiment,” Frank Bartleman, a Pentecostal revivalist, declared that America should “pluck the stars from its flag and instate dollar signs in their place.”13 The Pentecostal alternative to political activity is witness-bearing characterized by what Alexander calls “Spirit-powered, nonnationalistic, nonviolence.”14 In short, we vote with our lives, not with our ballots.
From the Catholic tradition, Todd David Whitman offers a critique of the 2003 statement of the American Catholic bishops, “Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility.”15 Whitman claims this statement merges “the object of Christians’ primary citizenship—the city of God—with the human city,” implying that “the conscientious decision not to vote is an act of bad faith,” particularly because “the bishops identify any refusal to participate in the political order as ‘retreat.’”16 Whitman asks: “What is a ‘faithful citizen’ to do if all the viable candidates in a particular election are not simply wrong on this or that policy, but are so egregiously in error from a moral as well as a political standpoint that one cannot in good conscience vote for any of them?”17 Drawing on the teaching of Pope John Paul II regarding the reality of human interdependence and the ethic of responsibility, he concludes: “The specific duty not to vote in a particular election does not exempt us from the duty to solidarity. In fact, viewed rightly, the decision not to vote is an act of solidarity towards the common good.”18 The myopic obsession with voting in presidential elections brackets civic obligations such as voting on other levels of government and contributing to the common good in “nonelectoral ways.”19
From a peculiar blend of Reformed and Anabaptist traditions, G. Scott Becker turns to the example of Karl Barth, who engaged the Nazi regime and disengaged from the Cold War because he would not endorse “the West’s project of self-deification” and its evasion of economic justice.20 Church neutrality is never benign but functions as an “open rebuke.”21 Where Alexander proscribes voting in all circumstances, Whitman and Becker prescribe voting depending on the circumstances, which I find more compelling. Barth’s exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 helps the Christian to finesse the relationship between church and state: “When the State begins to claim ‘love’ it is in process of becoming a Church, the Church of a false God, and thus an unjust State,” says Barth. “The just State requires, not love, but a simple, resolute, and responsible attitude on the part of its citizens.”22 Our pressing challenge, according to Becker, is to pray that the church will “take on a priestly relation” to the state, calling it to justice: “The church is not to resent or endure the political order as a necessary evil but to desire it as a power created in the image of the heavenly city and taken up by God’s salvific purposes.”23 Becker claims there will be circumstances when “a sudden, widespread Christian abstention from the electoral process could serve to expose the hypocrisy that has seeped in it.”24 He continues:
Most of all, when partisan political animosity has infiltrated the congregation so as to divide the body, or when the cause of Christ has become conflated with the limited agenda of one particular political party, then the time has come for the church to withdraw from political activity for a season in order to listen again to the voice of the One in whose name we speak. By extending our roots more deeply into our theological soil, we can prepare ourselves to present in truth and in unity the hope that the gospel brings to existing social structures.25
Although I do not know how or if Jesus would vote, I am persuaded that my discipleship is not incumbent on voting in every election. In 2008, I decided to cast my ballot. If future elections compel me to withhold my vote, I will do so—not with permanent resignation but with an expectation to emerge from silent isolation, as Nietzsche describes it, trying “the power of [my] lungs again,” calling to others “like men lost in a forest,” so we can “make [ourselves] known and encourage each other; of course, when [we] do, various things are heard that sound bad to ears not meant to hear them.”26
2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 210.
3. The Avalon Project, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.
4. Amy Black, Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of Politics (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 94.
5. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 211.
6. Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins, What Nietzsche Really Said (New York: Schocken Books, 2000), 15.
7. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 210.
8. Ibid., 211.
9. Ibid., 211.
10. For context, read Barack Obama’s announcement speech in Illinois: “Senator Obama’s Announcement,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/10/us/politics/11obama-text.html. For an example of Obama’s unbridled confidence in the ideals of the Constitution, read this speech given in Pennsylvania: “Barack Obama’s Speech on Race,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/18/us/politics/18text-obama.html.
11. Paul Alexander, “Voting With Our Lives: Ongoing Conservations along the Path to Pentecostal Faithfulness,” in Electing Not To Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, ed. Ted Lewis (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 84.
12. Ibid., 85.
13. Ibid., 85-86.
14. Ibid., 88.
15. Faithful Citizenship—United Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://www.faithfulcitizenship.org.
16. Todd David Whitmore, “When the Lesser Evil Is Not Good Enough: The Catholic Case for Not Voting,” in Electing Not To Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, ed. Ted Lewis (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 64.
17. Ibid., 64.
18. Ibid., 79.
19. Ibid., 80.
20. G. Scott Becker, “Serving by Abstaining: Karl Barth on Political Engagement and Disengagement,” in Electing Not To Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, ed. Ted Lewis (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 48.
21. Ibid., 48.
22. Ibid., 40.
23. Ibid., 40.
24. Ibid., 49.
25. Ibid., 49.
26. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 211.
Christopher Benson earned degrees from Wheaton College, Missouri School of Journalism, and St. John's College. He teaches and writes in Denver, Colorado.